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San Diego-area Congressmen Darrell Issa and Scott Peters don’t have much in common beyond being the incumbents in San Diego County’s only seriously contested Congressional races.
For one thing, there’s party affiliation. Peters is a Democrat while Issa is a Republican.
For another, there’s tenure. Peters is fairly new to Congress, having won his first election in 2012 while Issa has been in the House since winning office in 2000.
Add another difference to the list: their propensity to buck their party.
Peters, who’s 52nd District runs north from Coronado to La Jolla and then east to include Carmel Valley, Scripps Ranch, Poway and Rancho Bernardo, has voted against the majority of his fellow Democratic House members 12.2 percent of the time in the current Congress, which began last January.
That might not sound like much but it’s more than twice the average of 5.8 percent among Democrats and is surpassed by only 29 other members of Congress, according to Congressional data analyzed by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization.
Peters voted against his party 16.4 percent of the time in the previous Congress.
So what accounts for Peters’ relative heresy?
The congressman told inewsource he’s voting his conscience.
“I’m proud of my independent record. I think that’s what San Diego wants and that’s what I told them,” Peters said. “I said I would never be part of a partisan army. I would try to do the best thing for my country and district.”
Carl Luna, a professor of politics at San Diego Mesa College, said it’s a strategy born of political necessity.
“When that district seemed to be more of a swing district — in the transition from Brian Bilbray to Scott Peters and in his race against Carl DeMaio — he needed to triangulate himself in the middle to appeal to independents who would turn out to vote for Democrats to win the seat,” Luna said.
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Peters’ campaign frequently plays up that moderate image, sending out press releases touting endorsements from conservative organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce.
It’s a different story with Issa.
The Vista Republican, whose 49th District straddles coastal San Diego and Orange counties has voted against his party’s House majority 5.6 percent of the time this Congress.
That’s below the 7.0 percent average among his fellow Republicans and means he’s less likely to buck his party than 195 other members of Congress from both parties.
Issa’s never bucked his party on more than 8.1 percent of votes during any of his seven terms in office.
Luna said Issa, like Peters, has been playing to his district. The 49th District has long been a conservative one that went for Mitt Romney for president by six points in 2012, an election in which Romney received just 47 percent of the vote nationally.
“He is in a district that runs up through Oceanside and (Camp) Pendleton. It’s supposed to be much more conservative countryside with a clear Republican voter registration (advantage),” Luna said. “So he wanted to be sure that he didn’t appear too moderate otherwise he could be outflanked on the right.”
From his perch as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2011 through 2015, Issa was a regular thorn in the side of President Obama, lambasting his administration over alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups and the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
The ideological warrior routine worked for 14 years. Issa won every election between 2000 and 2014 with at least 58 percent of the vote.
Then came June’s primary in which Issa took just 51 percent of the vote to Democrat Doug Applegate’s 46 percent.
Issa’s campaign manager did not respond to interview requests.
Luna says the district’s changing demographics — the non-white share of its population grew to 39 percent in 2015 — and the “political earthquake” that has been Donald Trump’s candidacy, rejiggered the equation.
All of a sudden, the same doggedly conservative voting record that had shielded him from a potential right-wing primary challenger became a liability.
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“If he wanted to be competitive in the new environment that seems to be shaping up, he needed to actually break with his party more and he may lose because of it,” Luna said.
Indeed, the well-respected Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report recently rated Issa’s seat as one of just 36 competitive House races in the country. Even more striking was last Friday’s move by the Cook Political Report to designate his seat as a “Toss Up” after having him favored for months. National outside spending groups have taken notice, pouring nearly $700,000 into the race.
Meanwhile, Peters, who eked out narrow victories in 2012 and 2014 and was once thought to be vulnerable, appears to be cruising to re-election. He took 59 percent of the vote in June’s primary and national outside spending groups, sensing a likely Democratic victory, have passed on the race.
Peters said he doesn’t think about how particular votes could resonate in his next re-election campaign.
“I always think about what’s good for the district when I’m taking a vote,” Peters said. “My theory, as quaint as it is, is that if I do a good job for the country and the district, that people will re-elect me. So I tend to vote the way I think is best for my constituents.”